New studies provoke new fears.
Anne's daughter was less than an hour old when she asked: "Do you think she's autistic?" Her question didn't surprise me. A lot of parents ask about autism these days as they face one of their biggest fears. This was Anne's first baby and I told her what I know to be true: "She looks perfect to me. Odds are she's a healthy, unique little girl." Odds are, she won't be autistic either, but you can't tell right from the start.
The National Institutes of Health define autism as a developmental disorder that appears in the first 3 years of life, and affects the brain's normal development of social and communication skills. It affects different children at varying degrees. Some have very mild, almost unperceivable symptoms while others have severe disabilities that limit their abilities to talk and interact with other people.
Many people with autism have a different take on what it's like to live with autism and the first thing they'll tell you is that they're not disabled, damaged or sick. They're just not neurotypical, which means their brain doesn't work like a non-autistic brain does. They're wired differently and experience the world differently than neurotypical people do.
An autistic friend said, "It's kind of like the difference between a Mac and a PC. They both process information. They're just different." Another friend, whose daughter is autistic, said, "Instead of interpreting the world primarily through her eyes, my daughter's a 'nose' girl. She smells things first and gathers information that way. She also picks up sound information more acutely than others do. She's pretty amazing."
Many parents, like Anne, are terrified that something they did or didn't do could cause their children to be among the 0.4 to one percent of children who develop autism. Last week a new study in the Archives of General Psychiatry linked autism with antidepressants. Another study of twins revealed that most cases of autism are caused by environmental than genetic conditions, though genetics plays a part. We've been told autism is not caused by vaccinations, but might be caused by chemical toxins. A study published this year in the journal Pediatrics says babies born less than a year after their sibling are at greater risk for autism. Those born prematurely or with older parents are too. Then again, maybe they're not. These studies are not conclusive. They just provide hints and for too many parents, something new to be frightened of. Bottom line: We don't know what causes autism yet.
If only about one percent of children develop some degree of autism, that means 99 percent don't. Of that one percent, studies say about two-thirds are high functioning. Autism is a spectrum disorder, which means the variety symptoms and behaviors associated with it range from slight to severe. Their symptoms impact how they experience the world, but may not slow them down. That's what parents are really scared of: having a child with such severe symptoms that they'll be disabled. They don't hear enough about the brilliant children who have autism.
Jonathan Chase, 26, is a brilliant musician, board member for the Autism Society of Oregon, a motivational speaker and advocate for children living with autism spectrum disorders. He has a mild form of autism called Aspberger's Syndrome. Articulate, warm, well informed and funny, he shared what his life has been like "living on the spectrum." Chase says, "Childhood was tough, primarily because not enough was known about autism." Undiagnosed until age 14, Chase had trouble in school where he was bullied and ostracized. Chase says growing awareness of autism means other kids don't have to have the same negative experiences he did.
When someone gave 14-year-old Chase a guitar and taught him to play, he discovered his autism provided certain gifts.. He could focus intensely, hear, interpret and perform intricate musical patterns in ways few people could. He couldn't deal with public school, but got his GED and became a full time professional musician by age 16.
Jonathan's message is this: "Parents are told their autistic child won't succeed in life. They're told they won't work, marry, drive or do many of the things "normal" people define as success. If parents allow that message to sink in, many children won't grow to their potential. If, however, their parents embrace their child's unique way of experiencing the world and help them learn skills to navigate in a world that's not designed for them, then they can thrive. Don't let others define what you can do and what success means. Only you can do that."
What if your child is among the one percent with autism? Gather your resources, then embrace her, teach her, protect her and nurture her. Just like any child, she'll come prepackaged with her own gifts, talents and challenges. Your job is to help her thrive. Don't kick yourself that you did something wrong. Celebrate that you're going to raise a wonderful child, who just happens to be unique. Here are a few other unique kids who grew up to be very, very valuable: Albert Einstein, Darryl Hannah, Temple Grandin, Dan Ackroyd, Thomas Jefferson, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Beethoven…the list goes on.
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